more than just the election

By now we have all seen multiple absurd, fantastic and incomprehensible explanations for the recent Presidential election results. There’s been an astounding amount of unsupportable excuses from the losing side and an equally astounding amount of bloviating smugness from the “winners.” One thing that’s clear is that both the Donald and the Hillary were extremely disliked, extremely detached from ordinary Americans and extremely unlikely to change the society or the economy for the better.

I’ve come across a few articles that offer substantial insight into the election. This is one of them:

I roughly agree with this line of analysis. I especially agree with the idea that most people trying to analyze the election are not even familiar with peak oil and therefore do not understand, for instance, why it means the political policies of the New Deal will not restore prosperity to the American economy. Neither will “free trade” as exemplified by a series of trade treaties. Neither will restoration of punitive tariffs as proposed by Trump. Whether you think America was great during Roosevelt’s administration or Reagan’s or Bill Clinton’s, the prosperity that was possible with ample resources for all human needs is simply no longer possible because essential resources are no longer ample.

Here’s the heart of the reason, as expressed in Marner’s article: “… policy is no longer in charge. From now on, geology and physics call the shots. The remaining oil is too expensive to get to and extract.” This is certainly a simple and direct way of putting it. You might want to say that it is “overly” simplified, but you have to consider the purpose of simplification. If most people don’t get the basic idea, then direct and simple is exactly what is needed. As a host of technical details which support the basic idea are filled in, the picture becomes less simple, but the outlines stay the same.

Marner doesn’t even bring up the point of decreasing net energy in this article. I believe net energy is a good way to understand the critical difference between classic crude oil and “unconventional” oil from shale. Classic crude is concentrated relatively near the surface and under pressure in rock that is both porous and permeable. Unconventional oil such as found in North Dakota is trapped miles beneath the surface and dispersed in impermeable shale. The first type returns a hundred units of energy for every unit expended in exploration and extracting. The second type returns 10 in the sweetest spots, maybe 3 in average spots and less than 1 in many.

With higher net energy, profits to oil companies are also high even while the product is cheap. With lower net energy, profits are also low, or even negative, while the product has to be expensive for companies to continue producing it for long. Unfortunately, prolonged low prices for liquid fuels crush oil companies and oil-producing countries, while prolonged high prices crush the rest of the world economy. Thus, the cycling between high and low we have seen for more than a decade now.

In the real and complicated world, there are still some reservoirs of classic high net energy oil not yet completely depleted. Saudi Arabia is still pumping some of them, along with other countries in the Middle East. This might just possibly be the reason American, European, Russian and local armed forces are so active there. Marner is similarly blunt about the purposes of empire, though wrong about the idea that empires based on forcible theft are not present in the modern world.

Oil reservoirs in Mexico are visibly depleted, with the volume of Mexican oil production dropping steadily for over a decade. This might just possibly be the reason the Mexican economy is troubled, and there is no much pressure from Mexicans seeking a better opportunity across the border.

There are also some regions of shale exploitation still profitable, though most are not. This might just possibly be the reason there is so much social/political conflict (into armed conflict) in the shale fields and pipelines of America. The confrontation at Standing Rock is one part of this conflict, building up to more police violence than we want to see. Standing Rock is becoming the Middle East of the American Midwest.

In none of these cases is oil the sole and only reason for intense social/political/military conflict, just as slavery was not the sole reason for America’s Civil War. But just as failure to understand how all the issues directly connected to slavery pushed the nation toward civil war would give us absurd, fantastic and incomprehensible excuses for why the American Civil War happened, failure to understand how the availability of oil and other forms of fossil energy made industrial prosperity possible gives us silly and even idiotic excuses for the tide of prosperity slowly receding from America for the last 50 or so years.

Again – oil and oil depletion is not the sole cause of economic prosperity or depression. Yet it is essential to understand oil and depletion to understand why the prosperity of the past will not be brought back no matter how hard we want to believe it will. Something like 96% of industrial transportation burns fuel made from oil. No oil = no transportation; no airplanes, no ocean freighters, no trucks carrying items ordered from Amazon or even groceries. High-priced oil means less of all of these things; a shrinking economy because of physics and geology.

Prosperity in this economy depends on cheap liquid fuels. A shortage of fuels, which is the same thing as fuels too expensive for current common uses, makes for a sick economy. Here’s a close parallel: The presence of bacteria are not the sole cause of disease. It’s still essential to understand bacterial infections, especially for people who have an infection and even for people who have gone to the hospital for conditions not caused by bacteria. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century, we are all infected by oil.

Marner’s article, which I highly recommend, is not even close to the last thing anyone looking to find a path to ecological wisdom and social justice needs to read. It’s a bare beginning – but it does have the essential connection correct. We depend on a fossil fuel economy which is polluting air, water and soil and is also running out of its essential fuels.

What to do? How to solve the multiple problems we face? We can’t come up with useful answers by staying ignorant any more than medieval townspeople could, in their ignorance, avoid the Black Death when that plague arrived. The subject of peak oil, while not fun or popular, is just that important.


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